• Expert advice

    As Africa’s renewable energy sector grows, so too does the need for trained workers, and businesses and governments are taking steps to ensure that future demand is met.

    Expert advice

    ‘Must be able to work at heights and possess a high level of fitness and health.’ These are requirements for wind turbine service technicians as well as solar PV technicians. In both professions they need to be able to climb and carry out their work at precarious heights, be it on the roof of a building or on top of a wind turbine. They also have to be able to work in extreme weather conditions, often in remote locations. And that’s just the physical side of the job.

    Those who are already working on site – installing, maintaining and repairing wind and solar energy systems – say it’s a rewarding and hands-on profession, where different daily challenges keep them on their toes. In Europe and the US, renewable energy technicians also cite the job satisfaction they derive from generating cleaner energy for a more sustainable future. In Africa, the emphasis tends to be on job creation and bringing economic opportunity to rural areas that don’t have much to offer local communities.

    The renewable energy sector is providing interesting and fast-growing career paths in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, as well as in South Africa, where Eskom’s long-anticipated signing of round four of the independent power purchase agreements (PPAs) is set to significantly increase the number of renewable energy jobs.

    ‘We are sure that the many rural communities surrounding prospective wind farms that have been waiting for the development benefits associated with power plant construction, and the thousands of South Africans employed by the industry, are certain to be as relieved as we are,’ said Brenda Martin, CEO of the South African Wind Energy Association in February, following news that the signing of the PPAs would be imminent.

    Naim Rassool, director of the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (SARETEC) at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Bellville campus, says: ‘Our formal wind-related training has suffered as a result of Eskom’s refusal to sign the power purchase agreement, but we’re experiencing a strong demand for solar PV training for the domestic rooftop sector as well as training in energy efficiency from the industry side.’

    Responding to this demand, the state- of-the-art facility is currently introducing the European energy manager training pro gramme, which is a standardised, high-level course in energy efficiency aimed at technical experts, company executives and energy service providers.

    In addition to this managerial training, efforts are under way to build local energy efficiency capacity at the medium skill level. Rassool says: ‘We are working with other stakeholders to develop teaching materials for a national South African qualification as an energy audit technician – NQF Level 6. We will possibly start offering this training by mid-2019.’

    Candidates wanting to be upskilled by enrolling in this one-year course will need qualifications (NQF Level 4) in maths and science or a technical subject; or six months’ work experience as a qualified artisan. Once they have successfully completed the training, their role as an energy audit technician will entail measuring and analysing the energy performance of a home, commercial building, organisation or process, before making recommendations on how to improve the energy use and efficiency, as well as how to reduce the running costs and take advantage of tax incentives.

    However, solar is the renewable energy segment with the most progressive recruitment and training sector in sub-Saharan Africa – driven by the increasing demand for solar PV and thermal systems, rapid cost reductions and their huge potential for domestic use. ‘Not a lot of people are installing a wind turbine on the roof of their house, but there’s a move towards putting up solar PV panels or solar water heating,’ says Karen Surridge-Talbot, manager of the Sandton-based Renewable Energy Centre of Research and Development (Record). The centre forms part of the state-owned South African National Energy Development Institute (Sanedi).

    This is certainly true for Kenya, where government regulation demands that every building with hot water requirements above 100 litres per day installs a solar heating sys tem. But, according to the East African, the November 2017 compliance deadline has been postponed by another six months. Kenya has recognised the need for more solar technicians, as everyone engaged in the solar PV business is required to be licensed by the country’s Energy Regulatory Commission.

    Training is offered through tertiary institu tions, for example, the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University’s Energy Research Centre, and through the private sector, such as the China-Kenya Solid State Lighting Technology Transfer Centre.

    Private training provider Maxx Solar established its non-profit solar PV academies in four South African cities. It expanded to Egypt in 2014, Namibia and Zimbabwe in 2016, and Zambia and Lesotho in 2017. Other companies, such as the German SMA Solar Technology, offer solar training as well as webinars for technicians that use their specific products. And Enel Green Power has partnered with the Master Artisan Academy SA to offer free skills training for solar PV rooftop installers, and PV enterprise and sales development.

    A heightened focus on renewables has led to an increase in career opportunities across the sector

    The South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) announced a five-point plan to advance the solar PV industry at the Energy Indaba last December. SAPVIA chairperson Davin Chown said: ‘This will be done through skills development partnerships with the Department of Higher Education and Training through internationally recognised institutions such as SARETEC, and the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority.’

    Meanwhile, Surridge-Talbot says that one of Record’s flagship programmes is the Southern African Solar Thermal Training and Demonstration Initiative. This regional project is funded by the Austrian Development Agency, which brings together universities, vocational schools and other training centres from six SADC nations.

    These local implementation partners include, apart from Sanedi, the University of Botswana’s Clean Energy Research Centre; the Namibian Energy Institute at the Namibian University of Science and Technology; the Zimbabwean engineering company Domestic Solar Heating; the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University as well as organisations in Lesotho and Mozambique.

    Now in its third phase, the project targets installers of solar thermal systems but also those in the policy, administration and financial sectors. The end goal is a solar thermal implementation plan and road map for the six countries, as well as 12 policy workshops with 250 participants; 500 persons trained in 22 courses on design, installation and maintenance of solar thermal systems; and 100 solar thermal demonstration systems installed, in operation and quality checked.

    Back at SARETEC, the formal wind turbine service technician programme may soon be back on the cards. The seven-month course – the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa – graduated its third student intake in July 2017, but was put on hold because of Eskom’s delays in signing the PPA.

    The internationally recognised course incorporates two months of on-the-job training and is open to candidates who already have a minimum of an NQF Level 4 qualification in an electrical or mechanical trade.

    ‘Unfortunately we cannot formally train new wind turbine service technicians at present, but we have restrategised our wind offering,’ says Rassool. ‘We’re now focusing on the existing 200 wind technicians who are already working in the country by offering them short courses in basic safety training.’

    Safety training is paramount in this sector and includes working at heights, manual handling, fire awareness and first aid. ‘We’re also uncovering a new market,’ adds Rassool. ‘We’re offering basic technician training to school leavers from rural communities in the Eastern and Western Cape, where the wind farms are located. The five-day course allows them to assist qualified technicians. Some may even be inspired to enrol in further training.’

    Furthermore, SARETEC has teamed up with wind turbine manufacturer Nordex and turbine blade access and repair specialist Altitec to launch a Cape Town-based academy for rotor blade technicians.

    Until now, turbine blade technicians were flown in from Europe to service wind energy contracts in sub-Saharan Africa. ‘There’s a strong need for local teams as the rotor blades commissioned in round one of the PPA have reached the end of their warranty life,’ says Rassool. ‘You require specialist technicians to service and repair end-of-warranty blades in situ.’

    According to Altitec MD Tom Dyffort, the academy expects to attract new turbine blade technicians from across the continent. ‘We are investing now in the technical skills and job development needed to match future demand.’

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Image: Jotham Van Tonder/HMimages